IDOWU : MUCH ADO ABOUT IMPERFECT ELECTIONS
'Nothing astonishes men so much as common sense and plain dealing.' - Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), American scholar, essayist and poet in his work, Essays.
ACE American public communicator, Mark DeMoss, once articulated the strategic value of downplaying expectations. In his celebrated literary nugget, The Little Red Book of Wisdom, DeMoss illustrates the amazing power of understatement with the outstanding feat of a group named Promise Keepers, which pulled a huge crowd for its cause to the National Mall in Washington D.C. without beforehand predicting hyperbolic crowd figures in the press as was the standard practice. DeMoss thereby prescribes the rule: 'Under-promise, over-deliver…I have yet to see the company fail that promises less and delivers more. On the other hand, I have a bulging file of examples to prove that bold predictions can snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory…Understatement is self-restraint, and self-restraint is hardly a sign of weakness. On the contrary, wisely used, few things carry more power.'
It is strategic wisdom such as this that underlies the caveat by the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Prof. Attahiru Jega, that Nigerians shouldn't expect perfect elections in 2011. The operative term here is 'perfect elections,' since the Commission has repeatedly pledged commitment to conducting the most credible elections yet in Nigeria's history. But huge capital is already being made of this caveat by cynics, who infer from it prior admittance of failure by the new INEC.
Some commentators have argued that the caveat by Prof. Jega rings defeatist and signals that he might be ill-equipped to handle the monumental task committed by history to his hands and those of his fellow Commissioners in INEC. Others say he might already have come to terms with perceived insurmountable hurdles with which the political system is booby- trapped, and which they feared might have foreclosed successful elections in 2011. Yet some others diagnosed sheer diffidence in the new INEC regarding its capability to deliver on Nigerians' huge expectations. The most uncharitable of all is the imputation of opportunism to the INEC leadership by some cynics, who argued that the leadership holds turf still when, according to them, it already doubts its chances of success.
But in fact, nothing could be more misbegotten than thinking as these which lose sight (perhaps conveniently so) of the historical text of Prof. Jega's caveat. The new INEC has never suggested that the 2011 elections might not be successful. Actually, the Commission has consistently been upbeat on its determination to conduct free, fair and credible elections that will be universally seen as such. The Commission has also said it is committed to making every vote count this time, and it is leaving nothing to chance to deliver on that commitment. Of course, the chairman has always acknowledged that the challenges are enormous and the task difficult. But he never fails to affirm that it isn't an impossible task, that 'it is do-able and we will do it, with God's assistance and the support of well-meaning Nigerians.'
The caution against expectation of perfection is a function both of universal reality and historical fact. And I think the huge capital of cynicism being made of it is flagrantly selective. In his latest pronouncement on the issue (which was at the National Economic Summit Group policy dialogue in Lagos recently), the INEC chairman stated as follows: 'We have wasted and squandered so many opportunities in the past; we're running out of time and opportunities. We are at a threshold and a turning point. We must all work together to get it right this time around. We can and will strive for perfection; but should bear in mind that it (i.e. perfection) normally comes with practice, experience and time. Things have been so bad for so long in our electoral and political processes that we should not be totally disappointed if we do not attain perfection in the current endeavour. The key challenge is for us to all collectively be committed to success and to give it our best. Our collective best will no doubt amount to substantial, remarkable, satisfactory and acceptable outcome of free, fair and credible elections.'
The foregoing, I suppose, sufficiently articulates the historical context of the caveat. But I did note that the issue is also a universal reality. Here's the proof: the United States of America has been in the business of democracy for some two centuries now and as recent as 2004, that country contended with dubious elections in the state of Florida which necessitated the intervention of the courts. I happened to be in the INEC chairman's delegation when he visited the U.S. Election Assistance Commission - which is that country's federal election management body - in Washington D.C. penultimate week. On that occasion, Prof. Jega's outgoing American counterpart, Ms. Gracia M. Hillman, was unreserved in outlining certain procedures being put in place presently to fine-tune the country's democracy system. Quite instructively, Ms. Hillman and her colleagues at that meeting had no hang-ups stating that the American democracy is work in progress and a long way from being perfect.
Perfection really is an ultimate concept that is never attained anywhere in one try. And the whole point of the INEC leadership's caution on expectations is that such will require some practice, experience and time to attain. That, obviously, will not be wrapped up in the 2011 elections scheduled for barely four months from now. This will be so, not for defeatism on the part of INEC; it is plain commonsensical truism. If all goes well with the unfolding electoral processes as the Commission believes it will, and we have isolated incidents of shortfalls as there might well be, perfection could not be said to have been attained and it is needless setting public expectations on it.
But let's get the point clear: nothing in this caveat hints even faintly at the likelihood of the 2011 elections falling through. In fact, the polls are on solid course to succeed and be universally seen as such, considering the level of preparedness by INEC. At the last count, many of the Direct Data Capture machines required for the compilation of a credible voter register between January 15 and 29, 2011, have been supplied by the contractors and these are already being deployed on location. The unfortunate theft of a few of these machines at the Lagos airport penultimate week is of no consequence to INEC's capacity for the exercise; neither is it any threat to the integrity of the process because elaborate security features have been designed into the registration software, of which the Commission alone has the source code that is yet to be activated. Besides, some 1,000 master trainers prepared for the exercise have commenced cascade training in the states.
Meanwhile, the official harmonisation of polling units nationwide is virtually concluded and an interactive map of these units is already on INEC's website. On the sideline, simulations of logistical deployment of men and materials in polling units across the country - especially those located in difficult terrains - are intensely under way. And with security being a critical success factor for the elections, the Commission on Monday inaugurated an inter-agency committee on electoral security at the national level. That committee will be replicated in no distant time at the state and local government levels. This is besides ongoing engagement of the political parties by INEC to ensure internal democracy necessary to promote the credibility of the system.
The 2011 elections will not be perfect, strictly speaking, for the reasons earlier stated. But these are sure ingredients for brewing perfection, and INEC has pledged to raise the bar beyond minimum acceptable global standards even this time. The point is: if all stakeholders would engage conscientiously and committedly in the electoral processes alongside INEC, the 2011 elections will be just a short stop from perfection - real perfection.
• Idowu is Chief Press Secretary to the INEC Chairman